The Uniform All the Athletes are Wearing

Under Armour: a sports-clothing powerhouse that doesn't need protecting

July 14, 2010— -- Athletes are continually trying different ways to get the leg up on their competition - carbo loading, nutritional supplements, shaving their um, body – anything to finish a second faster, go the extra mile or rack up one more point before the buzzer sounds.

Kevin Plank, 37, recognized this competitive attention-to-detail and he managed to turn a business launched in his grandmother's basement into a multimillion dollar clothing empire.

Plank is the CEO of Under Armour, an athletic apparel company known for tight-fitting, sweat-wicking clothing, and this year, the company has set its sights high: Its goal is to bring in over a billion dollars in revenue.

As a mediocre football player at the University of Maryland in 1995, Plank was looking to give himself any advantage over his competitors. He decided to start with the sweat-soaked T-shirts he wore to practice.

"I was pretty short and slow, so my incentive was giving me that little edge and advantage," he said. "So much of sports is about the last inch and the last minute of the game."

Plank began making snug-fitting, "compression" t-shirts using a sweat-wicking, synthetic fabric. He did not invent the fabric, he simply created the shirts and asked some of his pro-football friends to try them out.

"I thought it was going to be easy," he said, recalling how he figured he could send out a few shirts and "be on easy street in no time."

However, he said, "the fact of the matter is it just doesn't work like that."

Plank based his business out of his grandmother's basement. He racked up $40,000 in credit card debt, and thousands of miles on the road, not to mention a ton of hard work.

"We were always smart enough to be naive enough to know what we could accomplish," he said.

Plank survived the early years of Under Armour, and the tight-fitting t-shirts became mainstays in football locker rooms. The shirts even appeared on star physiques in various football flicks such as "Any Given Sunday."

'We Must Protect This House'

And then there were the ads: the loud, aggressive angry ads that starred Plank's former college football teammate turned pro-football player, Eric Ogbogu. The ad features Ogbogu and other football players with their muscles bulging, drums pounding, skin shining with sweat beneath the tight-fitting tees. There's not a soggy cotton T-shirt in the bunch.

Plank boasts he hasn't worn cotton in over 13 years. "Cotton grew up as our enemy," he said.

According to Ogbogu, the ad campaign and its logo, "We must protect this house!" were just the testosterone infusion the company needed.

"It really changed the game," he said, pointing to a statue of himself that Under Armour commissioned to commemorate the campaign.

"At that point I had guys in the NFL who kind of saw me with the shirts on, and kind of snickered a little bit because they saw me with the tight-fitting shirts on," he said.

Ogbogu said that as the commercials aired more often, people began to take notice. "They started to see what it's about, they started to really get into the brand," he said.

"Everyone started to see the brand as a true contender in the game," he said.

Plank maintains an intense fitness regime, and he invites employees to participate in one of the company's daily corporate workout sessions.

"Everyone that wears Under Armour can look like me," Ogbogu jokes.

But "Protecting the House" is still the central theme of all their ads, including taking an aggressive, badass approach to ads targeted at women. Of the company's latest female-aimed ads, Plank said, "It's not soft," he said. "It's not a Noxema commercial."

Plank has been just as aggressive in business. "Our goal and our vision is to be the world's number one performance brand. Period."

Bigger than Nike?

Plank's ambitions include surpassing companies like Adidas and Nike, longtime hard-hitters in athletic apparel. "I'm not afraid of being bigger, but nothing's impossible," he said.

His desire to take down Nike is palpable -- Under Armour has recently attempted to break in to the sneaker business, with limited success.

But with nearly 3,000 employees worldwide and a product line ranging from base layers to ski parkas to basketball shoes, not to mention a roster of famous athletes sporting his gear, Plank is playing at an elite level.

He compared his business to a college football game. "Sales and marketing is offense, manufacturing and distribution is defense, finance and IT are special teams," he said.

Although it may seem like a game to him, Plank intends to stick to the business end of things, leaving football to the pros. "Athletics was something that kind of went away, so thank goodness for that, too," he said.

"I think I'm better at this," he said. "A lot better than I was in football."

Plank said that "Protecting the House" has become his personal motto as well as that of his company.

"That's my job," he said. "That's my job when I leave, I make that the same job of my son when I leave and go and travel or anything else, too."

Plank said when he leaves home for business trips, he will ask his six-year-old what his job is when Daddy leaves. "[He says,] 'I protect the house,'" Plank said laughing, "Gotta do it."